My (Long) Life with Blackboard

As we begin to examine Learning Management Systems (LMS), I decided to start with the one I know best, Blackboard. I first met Blackboard as an undergrad at the University of New Orleans. It was the first LMS I had ever worked with, just for reference this was pre-smart phones and at the time I had a Hotmail account. Technology being what is was at the time Blackboard was clunky, buggy, and did not have a rich user experience (UX). My first round of graduate school, I went to the New England Conservatory of Music, and they really didn’t implement any sort of LMS. So imagine my surprise when I got my first adjunct teaching job and the university I was working at was using Blackboard–pretty much the same clunky, buggy, dull UX, Blackboard of my younger days.

Why was this still such a popular LMS when there are so many great, specialized online tools available now? Because using a variety of tools may mean that “learners are likely to be overwhelmed by the many types of interface that they have to handle, and the learning experience will likely be frustrating (Woo, 2013, p.37 )”.  Blackboard puts a number of tools for students and instructors all in one place. What are some of these things Blackboard can do: integrate email, support a wide variety of content types (assignments, assessments, discussions, wikis etc.), sync with DropBox for easy assignment turn-in, provide a teacher grade book that can sync with assignments and assessments and can group and weight assignments according to the instructors needs, to name a few.

Here are the things that I have observed about Blackboard as I have used it:

  • The variety of content types are useful
  • While the tools are good, there were still better tools available
  • It requires an on-site administrator to assist instructors
  • The UX is not getting any better

The variety of content types are useful

After working with Blackboard for a few semesters, I found that the different tools in Blackboard were quite useful after some experiments and reiterations. Multiple choice assessments worked fine, but I did find it frustrating the sheer amount of time it took to create them. There is also the issue of academic integrity. If you intend to have a “closed-book” test, you will need to include the provision for a lockdown browser and a webcam to monitor the test. Some students find this intrusive. This being the case, I found that in in-person and hybrid class situations, where summative multiple choice tests were appropriate, scantrons were simply more efficient. Where multiple choice tests were very useful in Blackboard were assessment-as-learning situations. Automated quizzes in Blackboard can be given with multiple attempts allowed. The instructor can also set a cap on the number of attempts that the student can take. In this way, the instructor can give an assessment that tests or pushes student knowledge in a certain area that includes immediate feedback on what they got wrong. Then the student retries the exam. If they reach the maximum number of attempts, the quiz can be reopened after a meeting or correspondence with the instructor.

Surveys can be very useful tools in Blackboard. They can help an instructor gauge student understanding or preconceptions on a concept. Results of the survey are presented in an easy to interpret way. I found this very helpful to use in formative assessment. For example, if I wanted to know how well students understood our musical terms, I could put up a survey and see that 80% of the class correctly identified an example of polyphony, while 50% were still unsure of the difference between timbre and texture. I could also get candid feedback on their preconceived notions of particular types of music and cultures. Additionally, I could ask students to write a short essay where they discuss an example from class and then highlight the students’ responses. Best of all, all of this done with anonymity.

The discussion portion of Blackboard can be useful for discussions, but there were a few things that made it difficult. In addition to the perfunctory feeling that comes from these types of discussions, it was not easy to assign credit for participation, and the system of threads and subthreads left a lot of students lost and confused.

Tools are good, there are still better tools available

While there were useful tools in Blackboard, I did often find myself using outside tools. For example, shared Google Docs were just too useful to pass up. Having students be able to collaborate in a document in real time with the option to add comments as they work, was just too useful to ignore. Also, after a few attempts to have students do writing assignments in Blackboard, I abandon the concept in favor of using WordPress. Having an aggregated WordPress blog for the class allowed us to see each other’s work. I could use tags to create mini collections of different content that students could peruse to learn more about what they were interested in or stuck on. Finally, WordPress allowed for media including images, video, and audio.

It requires an on-site administrator to assist instructors

From an instructor’s perspective, Blackboard can be a bit of a headache. The myriad of menus and tabs in Blackboard can be a bit confusing. I remember at the beginning of each semester knowing that a colleague of mine would come knocking on my office door asking how to open their class. It was certainly not intuitive, which seems strange for something as important as making your class available to your students.

Also, while Blackboard has a number of useful features, including some very important accessibility features, they are not easy to find, and the help menu isn’t much help. This isn’t a huge problem since most large institutions have someone who serves as a Blackboard administrator, but I do think that ease of use of a system will influence how thoughtfully and effectively instructors will use it.

The UX isn’t getting any better

Having worked with Blackboard as both an instructor and student over the course of more than a decade, I can say, the UX is not great, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better very rapidly.

Next week, I am interested in exploring how Google Classroom compares to Blackboard. While it seems to have less customizable features, it may be that being able to include the whole suite of Google tools will make Google Classroom a viable alternative that has the advantage of being free.

Resources

Woo, H. (2013). The Design of Online Learning Environments from the Perspective of Interaction. Educational Technology,53(6), 34-38. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/stable/44430215

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